Strategic Work-Space Planning

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Space, buildings, and architecture are not the first things a company thinks about when it is “transforming work.” Yet changes to space and time are basic to evolving concepts of what work means. Employee empowerment, reengineered work processes, organizational learning, and the elimination of work-family barriers do not seem to be connected conceptually to a company’s accommodation, yet companies looking forward to growing and thriving — to more than just survival —are learning to examine their work spaces in new ways.

Corporate trends toward outsourcing and downsizing, reducing overhead, and consolidating all have space design implications — not just for real estate, but also in terms of the physical space in which employees perform their tasks. In this article, I examine attitudes toward space design and accommodation in light of two objectives: (1) to reduce costs and (2) to increase worker effectiveness. Not enough companies are taking advantage of the opportunity to “right size” their space, first, by using their real estate dollars more effectively and, second, by using the streamlining of accommodation expenditures as an opportunity to transform the organization. (I use the term “accommodation” to refer not only to the physical space an organization inhabits, but also to the elements of the work environment that make the space function, such as office technology, furniture, building services, and ambient environmental conditions — lighting, noise, ventilation, and so on.)

There are information, tools, and technology available to give white-collar workers a physical work environment that actively supports their task performance. A company does not need to pay for uncomfortable work space that slows work down, makes change difficult, or is less than optimal for work performance. By attending to the human aspect of space use, managers can gain more from money spent on office accommodation. In cases such as Apple Computer, Digital Equipment Corporation, and the NMB bank in The Netherlands, where “office of the future” concepts have been implemented, CEOs have found that strategic work-space planning — the integration of space-related decisions for work and workers with an organization’s business objectives — can potentially empower employees to take responsibility for and make cost-effective decisions about their own space.1 Strategic work-space planning can facilitate and, in some cases, drive reengineering of work processes, and can encourage teamwork, help flatten hierarchies, and instigate other organizational changes.

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1. For more detailed descriptions of corporate work-space innovation, see:

J.C. Vischer and W.C. Mees, “Organic Design in the Netherlands: Case Study of an Innovative Office Building,” in Design Intervention: Toward a More Humane Architecture, ed. W. Preiser, J.C. Vischer, and E.T. White (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991), pp. 285–300; and

F. Becker and F. Steele, Workplace by Design: Mapping the High Performance Workscape (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994), chapter 3.

2. P. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990).

3. I. Perrie, personal communication, 25 October 1994.

4. C.I. Barnard, The Functions of the Executive (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1964).

5. P. Drucker, “The Age of Social Transformation” Atlantic Monthly, November 1994, p. 53.

6. Plan Construction et Architecture, “Evaluation de l’environnement physique des espaces de travail” (Paris, France: final report, July 1991).

7. Buildings-In-Use, “Intelsat Headquarters Building-In-Use Assessment Final Report” (Wellesley, Massachusetts: technical report, July 1993).

8. J.C. Vischer, “The Psychology of Architecture,” Los Angeles Times, 28 March 1988, p. 4.

9. R. Bon, Building As an Economic Process (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1989).

10. For one approach to increasing awareness among both managers and employees of the effects of the physical environment on work performance, see:

J.C. Vischer, Environmental Quality in Offices (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1989).

11. R. Semler, “Managing without Managers,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1989, p. 48.

12. D.K. Carr et al., Break Point — Business Process Redesign (Arlington, Virginia: Coopers & Lybrand, 1992).

13. H. Sraeel, “Bank of Boston’s JIT Gives Eileen Harvard the FM Edge,” Facilities Design and Management, October 1992, p. 46.

14. Space Planning Organizations Research Group, “Bank of Boston’s Just-In-Time Workspace” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT School of Architecture, unpublished case study, 1994).

15. M.J. Earl and D.F. Feeny, “Is Your CIO Adding Value?,” Sloan Management Review, Spring 1994, p. 11.

16. Ibid., p. 13.

17. M. Joroff, M. Louargand, S. Lambert, and F. Becker, “Strategic Management of the Fifth Resource: Corporate Real Estate” (Industrial Development Research Foundation, report of Phase One Corporate Real Estate 2000, 1993), pp. 50–52.

18. Earl and Feeny (1994), p. 19.

19. R. Groulx, “On the Move: Planning Offices of the Future,” Sygma-Ink, September–October 1994, p. 7.

20. The design team comprises the author, the architectural firm Dupuis Dubuc and Associates of Montreal, members of Bell Canada Realty Services, and Bell Sygma staff.

21. J.C. Vischer, “The Office of the Future: Innovation and Cost Savings for Today’s Office Buildings” (Montreal: Metropolitan Montreal Energy Forum Bulletin, Spring 1995), p. 4.

22. J.C. Vischer, Workspace Strategies: Environment As a Tool for Work (New York: Chapman and Hall, in press).

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